Remembering a National Identity

 

We weren’t directly involved in the revolutionary process. We’ve been exposed to it, but not concretely. I wasn’t at the Bay of Pigs, nor was I around for the Mariel or the Camarioca boatlifts. I wasn’t there for the counter-insurgency battles in the Escambray; all that’s to say that these weren’t events that I experienced. I’m touched by them from a historical point of view…from what I learned in school. Those things were lived through by a different generation, while I’ve experienced something else, which is what I have to be concerned with. Understand? And since I’m experiencing different phenomena, a different energy, those are the ones I’m trying to confront, to figure out, to question. (Raudel Collazo Pedroso – aka Escuadrón Patriota – Havana Times, 2011)

The above quote from Cuban rapper Escuadrón Patriota, aside from speaking to the desire of a younger generation of Cubans to step out from under the shadow of the Revolution, tells of the way in which Cuba is remembered, and the way in which remembrance is used to define the space of Cuban identity. Within the revolutionary paradigm, there seems to exist something of a complex and collusionary nexus between nation-identity-remembrance; each existing on some grand and intangible scale almost, leaving many young Cubans, as Escuadrón Patriota so neatly puts it “exposed to it, but not concretely”.

As discussed in the introduction, to legitimise itself as representative of the Cuban people, and to help cement its own authority, part of the Revolutionary endeavour was geared towards discrediting the Platt Amendment immediate past – to separate Cuba’s present from this un-Cuban epoch. Thus the Revolution began almost instantly to construct its own series of remembrances; an instant creation myth, replete with key ‘events’, grand narratives and sites – ideological and geographical – at which one could remember the reclamation of an authentically Cuban national identity. The bulldozing of train track in the battle of Santa Clara[1] becomes not only an ideological tipping point at which one can determine the success of the Revolution, it has also become a physical site at which one can go to remember not only the specific act, but the forging of this revolutionary identity. At the monument in Santa Clara, the very train derailed by Che Guevarra and his troops is frozen in perpetual destructive motion; the precise moment of destroying the old and forging the new preserved as a sculpture; a monument to remembrance. Similarly, the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba – the site of the first principal attack made by the revolutionary movement – has been preserved, bullet holes and all, as it was the day of the attack; the day on which a new history, a new national identity, began. Tellingly, the Revolution took as its name the date of this attack – the 26th July Movement; an act of remembrance was at the very beginning of the Revolution. Indeed throughout revolutionary rhetoric, remembrance seems to have become something of an obsession. From the ‘official’ form of writing the date, which counts off the elapsed years of the Revolution[2], to this perpetual remembrance of monumental dates, heroic actions and reified actors, Cubans are told that to ‘be Cuban’ is to remember these key events. To ‘be like Che’, to ‘remember the five heroes’, to celebrate the 26th of July is to be Cuban.

Of course, as many theorists working on the intersection between national identity and remembrance have noted, this phenomenon of constructing a grand history of the nation, at once removed from, and yet representative of (responsible for) the constructing the contemporary everyday is not unique to Cuba. Many (most) nations have similarly historic ‘births’, moments and days that we both must never forget, and strive to remember in order to preserve some part of our collective identity[3].  As Tim Edensor notes, such collections of points of remembrance become engrained and enmeshed into a ‘culture’:

[Ernest Gellner discusses “high cultures”,] referred to as ‘garden cultures’ (Gellner, 1983:7), which are presumably surveyed, tended and codified by specialist experts. Thus a mass education system binds the state and culture together, canons are devised, museums are established, official histories are written… so that specific bodies of knowledge, values and norms are ingested by all educated citizens. (Edensor, 2002:3)

Gellner’s notion of the ‘garden culture’ speaks precisely of the canonical and highly organised remembrances of Cuba alluded to by Escuadrón Patriota above; sites of remembrance in which, through which, one must learn what it means to be Cuban. Remembrance becomes the nation, becomes identity. Yet such a garden of remembrance tends towards rigidity, and, as Edensor notes, such rigidity remembrance can lead to a lack of meaning:

The meaning of the symbolic cultural elements cannot be determined or fixed. In fact, particularly powerful symbols need to be flexible in order to retain their relevance over time and their appeal amongst diverse groups. As Guibernau says, “symbols not only stand for or represent something else, they also allow those who employ them to supply part of their meaning” (Guibernau, 1996:81) (2002:5).

This is precisely the concern of many young Cubans; a feeling of obsolescence surrounding the supposedly emblematic moments of remembrance that constitute the national identity – as Escuadrón puts it, “exposed to…, but not concretely” a series of moments that, because of the fixedness, fail to maintain such a relevance, as they are unable to be reinterpreted in the present as way of making sense of the present. The inadequacy of relying solely upon the remembrance of the ‘grand narrative’, the heroic event, as the foundation for a national identity is again highlighted by Edensor, in his assessment of Anthony Smith’s work:

The emphasis in [Smith’s] work continues to be on the historical and the traditional and official. For instance, he asserts that “national symbols, customs and ceremonies are the most potent and durable aspects of nationalism. They embody its basic concepts, making them visible and distinct for every member” (1991:77). This stress on the obviously identifiable, tangible, spectacular cultural effects obfuscates the everyday, taken for granted, cultural commonsensical practices as well as the popular forms circulated in a mass culture. (2002:9)

As Catherine Moses notes, such official ceremonies of remembrance in Cuba have become mandatory spaces in which to ‘keep up appearances’; a space not of remembering and reconfirming a national identity, but where those “within the system who no longer believe” (Moses, 2000:14) can allay the suspicions of rebellion and dissidence that may befall them by non-attendance.

Then if not in the grand gesture and the hero, perhaps it is in the everyday that Cuban identity is performed, repeated, confirmed, reclaimed and redefined. Perhaps in the familial – the private – sphere, rather than in the public sphere, dominated by adherence to the Revolution, that Cubans truly express themselves. Such an assertion is made by both Antoni Kapcia in noting that attendance at such public rallies diminished as Special Period Cubans retreated more into the realm of the private and the sphere of the family (2005). Suchlichi concurs in his assessment that the so-called “new man” of Cuba – dedicated to this public sphere and grand narrative of remembrance – is “nowhere to be found” (2000:57). Perhaps Cuban identity is to be found at the domino table, in the ration shop queue, around the television, in the catchphrase of a radio novella, and other such sites of the repeated, everyday. Such a process is described by Michael Billig as ‘banal nationalism’, in which, for the “daily reproductions” of national identity to occur, “a whole complex of beliefs, assumptions, habits, representations and practices must also be reproduced. Moreover, this complex must be reproduced in a banally mundane way, for the world of nations is the everyday world” (1995:6). Billig uses the metaphor of an ‘unwaved flag’ of national identity to describe this quotidian reproduction and representation; the place of “the numerous signifiers and reminders of the nation that form part of everyday spaces, routines and practices, as opposed to that which is wielded during overt displays of nationalism.” (Edensor, 2002:11). Such a model provides something of an antithesis to the revolutionary grand narrative that asserts the sites of the spectacular  – or rather the mundane sites made spectacular; the Moncada Barracks, the train in Santa Clara – are where national identity resides and where one must go to ‘remember the nation’. By asserting that ‘remembrance’ of a national identity is an on-going and continual process; one does not stop to remember – go somewhere to remember – but is always already engaged in the act of remembrance by operating within the everyday, for as David E. Sutton notes, memories are “formed as an interaction between the past and the present” (2001:9).

Such an assertion illustrates the complex web of connections between acts of remembrance (that is, the way in which we remember), memories (that is, what is remembered), personal identity (that is, how memories are ‘used’ – the use to which they are put – in the present), and national identity (that is, the context in which these identities are constructed, relate to and are influenced by).


[1] The pertinence of this as a key event in the remembrance of Cuban identity is demonstrated in the recent film ‘Che: Part One’ (2008, Soderbergh).

[2] Writing the date followed by ‘the fifty-third year of the Revolution’ is common.

[3] From a British perspective, the aptly named ‘Remembrance Sunday’ – “lest we forget” – remembers not the distinctly normal individuals who served in both World Wars, but a collectivised and abstracted vision of their heroicism; and in doing so we recognise the way in which the present has been constructed by the past.

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